Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusa-what?

This is a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a while: Cases! Although not really present in English or the Romance Languages (except for Romanian – love you, Romanian!), cases were once a massive part of their ancestors, Latin and Old English! Though it is easy to be naïve of features of other languages, it by no way means that they don’t exist! Cases are still a rich and beautiful feature in German, Icelandic, Russian, most Indic languages, Hungarian (there’s debate as to whether they are cases as such but I am going to call them cases for brevity), Arabic, Finnish – they’re everywhere! Cases add functionality to languages, allowing for changing word order for emphasis, to say more with fewer words, and they can remove the need for prepositions – they can do so much!

Now – What exactly is case?

A case isn’t the easiest thing to describe as to what it actually is, what it does is much easier to describe, though I shall try to describe a case.

Case is a name given to the category of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, participles or numerals which reflect the grammatical case performed by that word in its current position (in a phrase, clause etc). The reflection is via inflection of the various parts of the sentence. Inflection can be as simple as adding an “s” for possession: her → hers (this is the remnant in English of the genitive case, sometimes called the possessive case) or by changing the word entirely she → her. This type of inflection is called declension, whereas the inflection of verbs is referred to as conjugation.

It is crucial to the understanding of cases to see what sort of cases there are and what they do. There appears to be a hierarchy of cases, a theory developed by Barry Blake (https://web.archive.org/web/20070929161614/http://www.latrobe.edu.au/linguistics/LaTrobePapersinLinguistics/Vol%2005/01Blake.pdf) which shows:

nominative → accusative/ergative → genitive → dative → locative/prepositional → ablative/instrumental → others

The general idea of the hierarchy is that if a language has a particular case, it will most likely have at least one case from each of the categories to its left. So, if a given language has a locative case, it probably also has a dative, genitive, accusative or ergative, and a nominative. This is a generalisation and does not always hold true, for example Old English had an instrumental case but not a locative or prepositional case.

Here, I will show what each of the above named cases are for:

Nominative

This is the subject of the sentence (technically a sentence with a finite verb). To illustrate this, I will use the German word “Der Mann” meaning “the man” in English,

The man gives [to] the girl the boy’s dinner = Der Mann gibt dem Mädchen das Abendessen des Jungen

Der Mann is in the nominative form as is the subject of the sentence, the person doing the verb. In terms of pronouns, this is what most of us are familiar with, it is the I/you/he/she/we/they form!

Accusative

The direct object (of a transitive verb), this is when we would use “me” or “us” in English, such as “She likes me”, the direct object is “me” here.

She loves the man = Sie liebt den Mann

Notice how “der Mann” has become “den Mann”, this is the accusative form of the verb and it is different to the nominative form! Because of this, you could equally say “den Mann liebt sie” which adds more flavour to what you are saying, it puts an emphasis on the first thing said, this is like saying “No no, it is the man that she loves”, not, say, the woman.

Ergative

This is more complicated, it requires the knowledge of transitive and intransitive verbs; Transitive verbs require an object, intransitive verbs do not. So for example “to have”, in English you say “she has [X]”, you can’t simply say “she has” and have it have any meaning on its own. Whereas, taking a verb such as “to sneeze”, saying simply “she sneezes”, this doesn’t require an object, [X], for it to make sense.
Now, ergativity means that the subject (argument) of an intransitive verb behaves like the object of a transitive verb but differently to the agent (subject) of a transitive verb. This case is less common to English native, or most European native speakers, however it is in languages such as Basque and Tibetan! It is best understood through example.

The best example I found of this is on the Ergative-Absolutive wikipedia page with an example in Basque. It uses the two sentences “Martin has arrived” (intransitive) and “Martin saw Diego.” (transitive) and I will show the contrast to a nominative-accusative language too:

Martin has arrived = Der Mann ist angekommen = Martin etorri da

Martin saw Diego = Der Mann sah Diego  = Martinek Diego ikusi du.

As you can see, despite Martin being the doer of the verb in both examples, the subject changed in appearance (it change morphologically; in its form). Compared to a nominative-accusative language like German, it uses Der Mann in both the transitive and intransitive forms. (I used Der Mann instead of Martin to show that there really was no case change). This exemplifies morphological ergativity – there are other types of ergativity but I will leave it there. Ergativity puts Martin in the first sentence and Diego in the second sentence in the same case, when most languages would have them in nominative and accusative respectively.

Genitive

In its most general form, this shows one word modifying another word but many common uses are: possession (Cameron’s blog), composition (a selection of books), origin (People of Pompei) or compounding (this is often in Germanic languages when an “s” appears between two words to form a compound such as Realitätsverlust, a loss of reality, or in Grímnismál, the “Sayings of Grimnir” in Old Norse). Back to our example:

The boy gives [to] the girl the man’s dinner = Der Junge gibt dem Mädchen das Abendessen des Mannes

What happened here? We had Der Mann, Den Mann and now Des Mannes? Notice that in the genitive, Mann has a morphological change as well. This is because it is a masculine noun and masculine/neuter nouns in the singular get either “s” or “es” as a morphological ending in the genitive case. Note also that there was a second, subtle change: “Des Jungen” became “Der Junge” – this is because it is a weak masculine noun ending in an “e” and that’s what they do! Now, moving on – this isn’t a post dedicated to German! However it does show the crucial point that cases do not just cause the inflection of articles (words like “the” and “a”) but many parts of language such as nouns and adjectives too. Russian, like Latin having no articles, shows cases through noun cases, meaning that the nouns are heavily inflected to show their case.

Dative

The indirect object of the sentence is marked by the dative case:

The girls gives [to] the man the boy’s dinner = Das Mädchen gibt dem Mann das Abendessen des Jungen.

We see again a new form of the definite article, German’s fourth case, so our examples are now depleted from German! Though there are several uses for the dative case which vary between languages, the example above shows the most common usage between those languages.

Locative

This is the location of whatever is being inflected. This case has merged with other cases in many current Indo-European languages, even in Classical Latin this had begun to happen but it still exists in, say, Sanskrit and also in the modern Balto-Slavic languages, except for Macedonian and Bulgarian, though it is almost exclusively used with prepositions. For example:

She sits at the table and eats = One siedzi przy stole i je.

“Przy” is one of the 5 prepositions in Polish that can take the locative and is the only preposition to only take the vocative. The nominative of “table” is “stół” and as you can see, in the locative, the became “stole”, a very different pronunciation to the original!

Prepositional

The locative is often called a prepositional case because of its tendency to only be used with prepositions. As such, a prepositional case is the case that marks the object of a preposition or a postposition. This term describes a case that is exclusively used with prepositions, not just prepositions that are used with certain cases.
In Russian, the prepositional case is used to designate place, to designate the object being thought about or talked about or to show time.

This was in May = Это было в мае

With the nominative of May being май. However, this demonstrates the independence of the prepositional from the locative as there is no location shown here.

Ablative

The word “ablative” itself comes from the Latin ablatus meaning “to carry away”. The ablative isn’t that common of a case, existing notably in Latin, Armenian, Hungarian and Finnish (and still quite a few others) though not in Ancient Greek. Given its etymology, the ablative is used to show “from”-ness as in from a place, a person etc. The most common way of exemplifying the ablative would be through Latin given that that is whence it got its name, however, here I’ll choose Hungarian, the language of my family on my mother’s side.

Reggel hattól nyolcig – From 6 a.m. to 8 a.m.

Here, -tól is the Ablative but in a more abstract sense of from 6 a.m. until 8 a.m. whereas there is a literal of “from”-ness as in

A háztól – from the house

which is the “from” that most of us would think of straight away.

Instrumental

Having nothing to do with musical instruments, the instrumental case does what it says in its name, it indicates that the noun is an instrument (a tool) or means with which a subject does something. In English, the case would be used when you could use “by means of”, “by use of” or sometimes “via”. Languages which use or used an instrumental case are Old English, Basque, Armenian, Japanese (if you count Japanese particles as being case markers), Nahuatl and many others!

Under the assumption that particles class as a case in Japanese, the sentence:

この本はペンで書かれた。- This book was written using a pen.

(This was not in quote fashion as the kanji were in italic and it just looked a bit too weird). Here, で (de), shows the means by which something is done and in this example it is the means by which the book was written. Another example is from Nahuatl:

ātlān ācaltica in huāllahqueh – They came on the water by boat

Where “ācalli” means “boat” and the suffix -tica shows the instrumental case.

Others

An honourable mention is the vocative case. With its name deriving from the Latin vocare meaning “to call”, this is the case used to address someone and the addressee is marked with this case. In English, the comma used before someone’s name is called the vocative comma, demonstrating, using punctuation, the case’s use:

Are you coming, Kasia? = Idziesz, Kasiu?

With this example coming from Polish, you can see that even personal names get affected by case! Though this would come to no surprise to someone who had begun studying some Latin via a certain popular university’s course; with Caecilius (nom), Caecilium (acc), Caecilii (gen), Caecilio (dat) etc.

A note on case usage

Even though above I have shown how cases are used and their general usage, each language has their own differences on how they employ the case. Prepositions trigger certain cases. Every student of German has at some point had to find a way of remembering the list of Dative prepositions, accusative prepositions and the dual prepositions and everything else is probably genitive, especially it if ends in -halb! And it is not just prepositions that do this, verbs can as well. Again in German, if we take the verb “danken” meaning “to thank”, this always takes a Dative object so “I thank you” becomes “Ich danke dir”. A way of rationalising this is that you could imagine “I give thanks [to] you”. So this could easily be a reason why the Dative is employed here. Languages are so broad and beautiful that one could not hope the explicitly list exhaustively what each case does – their list of functions would end up looking the same!

What is the point of case?

Now that we have an understanding of what cases are, what’s the point of them? Well, to an English-speaking native, case seems like an abstract concept, but to someone whose native language is filled with cases, it gives linguistic freedom; word order no longer determines meaning (at least entirely). In languages such as German, some of the cases look identical, such as feminine nominative/accusative (die) or genitive/dative (der) but that is bound to happen – a unique form for each gender and each case would be tasking for anyone to learn and especially to keep it up over the centuries of linguistic development!

If you made it this far – thank you for sticking it through, you must love cases as much as I do! There were probably more concise ways of wording this but this post is aimed at people who might not know much about cases or just want to know more! 

Oh on a final final note, if it didn’t come through – I adore cases, they are a beautiful addition to language, seeing how even a single word can convey the equivalent of several in, say, English. They are wonderful to study! Equally, prepositions are super fun. Languages are just pretty!

Stay tuned for more linguistic content!
-Cameron

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